Toussaint mourned, connection to local Jewish community recalled
By ALAN SMASON, Exclusive to the CCJN
When Allen Toussaint died of an apparent heart attack in Spain earlier in the week, the outpouring of grief from every imaginable sector of the city was palpable. This included many members of the local Jewish community. While many recalled his gentlemanly manner, his authority in the recording studio, his gift for arranging and his ability to bring the best out of others, a few like me, who had been privileged to know the producer-composer-arranger on a more personal basis, felt the loss even more.
Toussaint was a friend to Jews throughout New Orleans, athough he had reason not to trust several who had their hands and fingers in the recording industry, especially in New York, where he first tried to ignite his career.
Following his service in the U.S. Army, Toussaint was signed to a record deal in New York for RCA Victor Records. “The Wild Sounds of New Orleans” was his first record in 1958 and a foolish attempt by record executives to get album purchasers to correctly pronounce the performer’s surname by listing his name as “Tousan.”
A little later he was signed to a personal services contract by an unscrupulous record company executive. Toussaint had to fork over one-half of his publishing rights for any song he wrote under his name, This was the reason that many of his early 1960s hits bear the name Naomi Neville, his mother’s name.
Toussaint’s earliest hits were “Whirlaway” and “Java,” an instrumental hit for New Orleans trumpeter Al Hirt that hit as high as #4 on the Billboard Top 100 in 1963. Co-written with saxophonist Alvin “Red” Tyler, Toussaint was surprised to see Freddy Friday, a third name on the label, who got an equal one-third cut for royalties. It turned out to be a record company executive who placed his name on the records just prior to its publishing. Toussaint and Tyler were both powerless to prevent the ripoff.
His biggest hit after “Java” was another piece for a different trumpet player in 1965. Herb Alpert’s “Whipped Cream and Other Delights” went on to become the number one record that year propelled to the top by Toussaint’s favorite of “Whipped Cream.”
But that connection would not have been made had it not been for Irvin Smith, one of the owners of recording company Instant Records and the purveyor of records at Smith’s Records. Toussaint and Mac Rebennack (a. k. a. “Dr. John) would be utilitzed as the session leaders for many recording sessions Smith and his partner Joe Banacek would hold. More to the point, though, Smith was my mother’s older brother. He was my “Uncle Irvin.”
Smith met Jerry Moss, the business partner of Alpert in A&M Records. Smith insisted that Alpert record Toussaint’s songs and Moss made certain his partner did just that.
For decades later Toussaint and Smith remained good friends. Toussaint’s first major concert before a New Orleans audience was at the Muncipal Auditorium in 1968, when he opened for O.C. Smith on his “Little Green Apples” tour. Toussaint appeared before the audience wearing a set of white tails and played a white Steinway grand piano.
One of the most popular of the Jazz Fest Shabbat’s was the 2009 event when Toussaint played at Touro Synagogue along with special Jewish guest performer Paul Shaffer.
Following the passing of Professor Longhair, Archibald, Tuts Washington and James Booker, he assumed the title of elder statesman of New Orleans piano music. His early work with The Meters, Irma Thomas or his work years later with the Pointer Sisters and Dr. John helped him achieve legendary status. Toussaint became one of the most beloved of performers at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. First playing on the Riverboat President, Toussaint eventually performed on major stages that drew thousands.
Local rock photographer Sidney Smith (a cousin) has several photos of Toussaint taken during his middle and late periods.
Lastly,because I had an established connection with him both at the record store and through my uncle and mother, Toussaint picked me to work on his computers. That is where I came to know him much more intimately, as a worked to repair software or hardware on his systems.. Whenever we would see each other, there was a mutual admiration society, although the amount of talent he possessed was far in excess of what I brought to the table.
Following Hurricane Katrina and “The River in Reverse” album he recorded with Elvis Costello, Toussaint took to the road more often and found audiences worldwide salivating for his performances. His time spent on the road became more pronounced as demand never seemed to diminish.
Recently, he performed on “Steppin’ Out,” the weekly arts and entertainment show on WYES-TV on which I serve as the theatre critic. It was the last time I saw him perform, although I was unable to see him perform live in the studio, as he had to dash off prior to my arrival for another rehearsal for a show that night.
It was just like Allen Toussaint in recent days; he was a man who yearned to slow down, but whose audience wouldn’t allow it. Now we in the Jewish community and those across the world will have to share him with the stars in the heavens.